NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — Flying due south from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, the Louisiana coast looks at first just as it did decades ago, with thick, marshy wetlands broken only by freshwater lakes and streams. Within minutes, however, that landscape gives way to a different scene: tufts of grass clinging to tiny slivers of land, the wild curves of the remaining patches broken by thousands of razor-straight lines where oil and gas companies have laid pipelines and dredged canals to give their boats easier access to the rigs and wells that dot the coastline. Just below the water, the murky outline of recently submerged land is visible from 1,000 feet in the air.
Keep flying south and a glimpse of the future of the coast emerges — open water as far as the eye can see.
“When you fly over that coastal area, you’re going to see how it is today. You’re not going to see how it was. You’re not going to see how it’s going to be,” said Steve Estopinal, a career land surveyor and the president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority. “But if you want to think about how it’s going to be, just fly a little further out into the Gulf of Mexico and you’ll get a good idea.”
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
This swift erosion poses a very serious threat to the coastal communities who are watching their land crumble away beneath them at the fastest rate in the world: the state’s shoreline is losing a football field-sized area of land every hour. Furthermore, as the ocean eats away at the remaining wetlands, a natural process unnaturally sped up by oil and gas extraction, levee construction, and sea level rise, the marshes are unable to absorb storms that regularly batter the coastline. Without that natural buffer, strengthened hurricanes are making landfall, devastating both urban and rural areas that previously rode out storms mostly unharmed.
“It’s the greatest ongoing environmental disaster in the country, maybe even in the world,” Democratic strategist and Louisiana native James Carville said. “It’s a really grave problem.”
A 2006 study by the U.S, Geological Survey and Gas Research Institute concluded that 36 percent of the wetland loss was directly caused by the oil and gas companies’ activity. As the state and its people wrestle with the impacts of this grave problem, an unprecedented court case is pitting the independent state agency responsible for protecting Louisianians from floods against the dozens of fossil fuel companies whose decades of largely unchecked extraction activities have put the state’s vital wetland ecosystem on life support.
A Tale of Two Islands
On an aerial flyover of the coastal wetlands provided by the non-profit SouthWings, ThinkProgress reporters could see the disastrous effects of the oil and gas companies’ activity almost immediately. Solid land turned into spotted wetlands with dredging canals and pipelines running between patches of green marsh. After leaving behind the tall buildings of metropolitan New Orleans, the plane headed toward Delacroix Island on the easternmost reaches of St. Bernard Parish.
Once an island inhabited by descendants of Spanish Canary Islanders, a handful of recreational fishermen are now the only residents, living in scattered homes constructed on top of elevated piers.
Estopinal told ThinkProgress his Spanish-speaking grandfather was one of the inhabitants who lived off the land before the erosion and storms worsened.
“I remember Delacroix Island was a nice little community,” he said. “They had a movie theater. They probably had six or seven bar rooms, a couple of churches and a nice school. Now I think living in Delacroix Island, now, there might be only three children. The cultural devastation is another issue.”
The marshland that once buffered Delacroix from storm surges has disappeared, explained Jonathan Henderson, a coastal resiliency organizer with the Gulf Restoration Network. Though the community was able to rebuild following past storms, the dangerous flooding caused by Hurricane Isaac in 2012 was the final straw. Many residents decided to leave the island rather than rebuild their homes yet again.
“What has changed drastically is that there are very few inhabitants on the island,” Henderson said. “It’s become very inhospitable. All the houses you see are basically fishing camps. They’re elevated way off the ground because they have to be — the storm surges that come through, even with a tropical storm system, cause the island to flood.”
Further west, another island community is watching its home disappear. The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, a Native American tribe recognized by the state of Louisiana but not the federal government, has lived on a small island in Terrebonne Bay for nearly 150 years — having settled the land after narrowly escaping the Trail of Tears.
After decades of oil and gas activity just off its shores, erosion and sea level rise have reduced the Isle de Jean Charles to a tiny fraction of its former size, and its dozens of remaining tribal residents are unable to support themselves farming and trapping as their ancestors did.
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Now, a single narrow road connects the island to the mainland, and even mild flooding can cut the community off entirely. Louisiana is currently building a new levee in the area, but it cuts right between the island and the mainland, leaving the island itself vulnerable to major storms.
Without additional protections like a levee, the island is likely to vanish into the gulf in the less than two decades. The tribe’s chief, Albert Naquin, said his appeals to the parish government and the Army Corps of Engineers to reroute the levee to include his community were fruitless.
“They said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to help you out. We’ve got something planned for y’all,’” he scoffed. “Yeah, a plan to let us drown.”
The Wetlands’ Day in Court
As communities on the front lines of the erosion struggle to adapt and survive, some are turning to the courts to demand accountability for the degradation of their environment.
In a lawsuit brought against nearly a hundred fossil fuel companies last year seeking compensation for the damage to the coast, the Flood Protection Authority wrote: “The natural protective buffer took 6,000 years to form. Yet … it has been brought to the brink of destruction over the course of a single human lifetime.” For Estopinal, the “single human lifetime” is his own.
Speaking to ThinkProgress in the lobby of a New Orleans hotel where he was conferencing with other Flood Protection officials in December, Estopinal described the dramatic changes he’s personally witnessed in his hometown of St. Bernard Parish. “I can remember as a young man going out in the prairie where you could fold the grass down and put a blanket out and you could spend the night, dry,” he said. “That same place now, people are trolling for shrimp.”
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
When he began a career as a land surveyor, he began to notice troubling trends, long before the discussion reached the political classes and general public. “In the 1970s, I could see a problem with the rapid subsidence that was occurring. Well, during those 40 years of work I’ve been doing in this area, I’ve noticed how exponentially the storm surge threat increases.”
That increased threat literally hit home in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina destroyed Estopinal’s house and business, forcing him to move. “It’s one thing when we think about geological changes, but when it’s in a man’s lifetime, that’s pretty spooky,” he said.
Hurricane Katrina served as a wake-up call for many in the state. The catastrophic storm was the single event that led Jonathan Henderson to a career in gulf coast advocacy. When he was a kid, Henderson said, hurricanes would hit the city, “but it was always like a stay-at-home vacation.”
When Katrina made landfall, Henderson was studying law in Baton Rouge, but he obtained a permit to enter his hometown of New Orleans and help bring boats and other supplies to people in need.
“Hurricane Katrina opened my eyes to issues I knew were a problem but I didn’t have that much knowledge about,” he said. “I learned that Katrina would not have caused nearly as much damage had we had the 2,000 square miles of land between us and the Gulf of Mexico that we’ve lost since the 1930s.”
For Henderson, the storm’s devastation was a wake-up call. “I just know that if we don’t fix our wetlands, then we’ll lose New Orleans again,” he warned. “But we don’t have the money to do it. The oil and gas industry needs to step up to the plate to pay and if they won’t do it, they need to be forced to do it.”
The state’s new comprehensive master plan to shore up the coastline and protect the state from hurricanes and the rising sea will cost, at a minimum, tens of billions of dollars, and Estopinal believes those responsible for the lion’s share of the damage should have to foot the bill. The Southeast Louisiana Flood Board is currently fighting in court to force nearly a hundred fossil fuel companies — including BP, Exxon and Chevron — to pay up.
But even with that massive infusion of cash, should it ever come, Estopinal is skeptical that the coastal ecosystem is salvageable. “We’re probably past the tipping point as far as wetland restoration,” he said. “There is some restoration that could take place … but generally it’s like a broken egg. It’s not going to go back together.” The lawsuit, Estopinal said, is the only remaining hope to bring in funding to protect what’s left of the coast.
Despite intense pressure from the fossil fuel industry, seventeen local parishes along the vulnerable coast have joined together to file their own lawsuit against the oil and gas companies, noting that without a windfall of funding from a settlement or damages awarded from the courts, they can’t meet the needs of desperate coastal communities.
Nicholas Matherne, the director of coastal restoration and preservation for Terrebonne Parish, recently told a gathering of his parish’s Native American residents how difficult it is for community members to improve the situation.
“When people ask what I can do about coastal erosion, I say, ‘Do you have ten billion dollars?’ If not, there’s not much we can do on the ground effectively,” he said. “We live on the most rapidly deteriorating marsh on the most rapidly deteriorating coast on planet earth. Every day we have more water and less land.”
The parish’s lawsuit, like the Flood Authority’s, is currently mired in legal arguments about which courts have what jurisdiction to hold which companies accountable.
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
The oil and gas corporations, represented by a small army of high powered lawyers and lobbyists, are fighting back against both lawsuits, calling them “an assault on the oil and gas industry and an attempt to extort cash from the very industry that provides thousands of jobs to our state and provides energy to our nation.”
Don Briggs, the President of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, declined ThinkProgress’ request for an interview, but in a statement warned: “The negative impact of this suit will continue to be felt across the state as fewer dollars will be invested into our state economy, fewer rigs will be present, and in turn, fewer revenue dollars will be contributed to our state budget.”
The industry also has the full backing of Louisiana’s governor, newest senator and legislature, which passed a bill this summer attempting to kill the lawsuit. Governor Jindal, who has received generous donations from the oil and gas industry during his time in office, has blasted the lawsuit as “frivolous” and made attempts to appoint levee board members more favorable to corporate interests.
Now, the Flood Protection Authority and the oil and gas companies are mired in legal arguments over whether the lawsuit can move forward in spite of the new legislation. As the lawsuits drag on, potentially for years to come, officials are reluctant to speak out on the record against the powerful fossil fuel industry. Those who have say they’ve faced retaliation.
One state official who spoke on the condition of anonymity compared the fossil fuel industry’s control over the state to a traditional “monkey trap,” in which hunters use a gourd with a piece of fruit inside the narrow end to lure a monkey. Because the monkey’s instinct is to reach inside and grab the fruit and not let go, the official explained, he can’t escape even when a hunter approaches to kill him.
“He could have let go of the fruit or turned the gourd over, but he can’t do it.” he said. “The oil industry is Louisiana’s monkey trap. The people can’t let go of that very juicy fruit, and so they trap themselves.”
Part Two of this four part series visits the residents of Isle de Jean Charles and other Native American communities whose land, livelihoods and culture are threatened by coastal erosion.